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TNH Travels: ‘Monkey Business’

It’s 5:15 p.m. and my watch alarm jerks me awake. I hear Nacho ignite the stove and I soon  smell the coffee brewing. His espresso beans are from a family farm, strong enough to wake the deepest sleep and kindle a race within the camp to win a cup.

Eyes open or closed, Panama’s early morning is dark and heavy. Thick, cool air swarms underneath my sheets and the jungle hisses for me to stay in bed. I’m tempted, but my nostrils remind me that there’s coffee.

I jump to the cement floor of our palapa from my top bunk, shuffle on my hiking boots and stumble through our military-grade, mosquito-net front door, hoping to greet Nacho before the rest of my team.

Nacho, short for Ignacio, is the only native in our squad. Unlike our group of students, his work for the sanctuary is full-time: a means of income to supplement a family-run coffee business. Beyond his knowledge of wildlife and bush-whacking, Nacho coaches our team of zoologists through the Panamanian jungle. Without any of us knowing Spanish, his lessons were more of a “monkey see, monkey do” endeavor. Pun intended.

Following a breakfast of oatmeal, mango and coffee (if you’re lucky), teams of three or four break off into shifts.

Today, I am on the howler shift. Gear is minimal: pants (not shorts), tank top, sunscreen, boots and snake guards, which are a trekker’s cardboard protection from the jungle’s venomous fiends. Do not forget them.

Task: remove the young howler monkeys—Ollie, Stevie, Rugby and Mags—from their enclosure and hike deep into the jungle. Encourage them to climb and eat from trees; stay in the trees, don’t touch the ground. Monkeys don’t touch the ground.

The sun is only peeking above the treetops, but the heat makes its way through dense air one particle at a time. Sweat starts at my scalp, but soon leaves its trail down each inch of my skin. From brow to neck, chest to hips and knees to toes, my muscles scream in resistance to the steep climbs found in each day’s work. Water lessens the pain, but coffee’s better if you’ve got it

For hours, I hike with Stevie sitting on my back.

Her past is sad; carried by her mother, the pair was struck by a fallen power line. The impact left her mother dead, and Stevie blind.

Her present sits on my shoulders; her tail is curled tightly around my sweat-slathered neck and her head and arms rest on my blonde hair. Her nails dig painfully into my scalp, clinging for balance.

We pave the way for her future. Unlike her comrades, Stevie will never survive the jungles on her own—she will stay at the sanctuary until she dies. Nevertheless, she stumbles her way amongst the leaves.

Our shifts take all day, and we return to camp fully saturated and exhausted. The monkeys are back in their makeshift aviary, napping and unaware of their circumstance. The team gathers, makes dinner and strategizes the release of our primates.

Dinner is beans and rice, followed by coffee and yoga. If we’re lucky, we have the energy for a swim. Crocodiles? Probably. Enduring the threat of venom and sharp teeth is part of the job description. If you’re going to survive a life in the field, and in Panama, you’ve got to thrive on thrill. And coffee.

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